Thursday, February 03, 2011
Single Serving Egyptian Friends (I hope you are well...)
As part of the project Basem and Asra came over from Egypt to the US to spend a week on the design of the system we were building. Basem, the IT Specialist, was a Coptic Christian and Asra, the Project Leader, a practicing Muslim. Both are a relative rarity here in rural western Pennsylvania where I live. Over the course of the week they were here I had a chance to get to know them and learn a little bit about their culture.
What made me think of them was the fact that much has been said about the fact that many of the protesters are "young", use cellphones and the internet for communication, and so on. Of course, both Basem and Asra were relatively young and no doubt fit the profile as "tech savy" types that would be plugged into the protests, at least according to the news accounts.
As the visit progressed we were able to take our guests to lunch and sometimes dinner. Each outing was an interesting cross-cultural affair.
As a Christian Basem was considerably more westernized in his views - though perhaps more with an flavor of the 1800's than the 21st century. Coptic Christianity, which originated int the first century, is a faith practiced by about 1/6th of all Egyptians (10 million out of 60 million) - a figure surprising to me at the time as I considered Egypt to be a Muslim country.
(Even the name Egypt is a western creation. It was first used by the ancient Greeks, Egyptos, from the ancient Egyptian words (Hut-Ka-Ptah), one of the names for “Memphis”, the first capital of Ancient Egypt. I spent some time studying the Ancient Egyptian and Ancient Greek languages in school.)
Basem was gregarious and cheerful. He was happy to talk about his culture, his life and his family.
For example, he told us dating was allowed only as a group affair - there were no western-style boy-girl dates. Basem, who I estimated to be in his middle-late twenties, described of how mixed gender groups of friends would get together and go out to restaurants or parties in order to get to know one another. As two people's interest in each other would grow there was eventually a formal process for the male "asking for the hand in marriage" of the female dictated by their culture and faith.
There was no "living together" or any of the common western-style relationships one finds today. Beyond this he was generally familiar with the west and our views - though he considered our model for male/female courting and dating absolutely bizarre.
Asra, on the other hand, told us that she was initially frightened of us. Being a practicing Muslim woman from the middle east alone in the USA her perspective on the west was that we were probably all war-mongering barbarians (sort of along the lines of the Capitol One airline mile credit card barbarians you see on TV). However, as the days passed her views changed, at least a little. By our second or third group trip to lunch she began to believe that we would not attack and kill her and began to relax a bit.
We found out that she was concerned, for example, that she would not be able to eat anything here because of Islamic dietary laws. However, that turned out not to be the case as she found that most places we went to had a large variety of food on the menu - much of which that could be fit to her dietary requirements. Asra, did not talk much about herself, her family or her social life I think out of fear.
At one point my wife and I took the two of them to dinner. Up until this point both Basem and Asra had only interacted with males since the entire corporate staff of four at that time was all male. Upon meeting my wife Asra seemed to open up considerably talking about how afraid she was initially that we were all barbarians and talking openly how she believed that everyone in the USA was out to destroy and kill all Muslims. I think that this dinner to some degree gave her a different perspective on us western barbarians.
At the end of the week when they were preparing to leave they offered us gifts - papyrus paintings of the pyramids and Spinx they had brought with them.
The project was ultimately canceled (run by a shady Brit it turned out to be just hot air) and he left Basem and Asra's employers with a very large unpaid bill. Unfortunately, like so many "single serving friends" you meet in the corporate world we lost touch over the years.
Posted by John Gault at 10:14 AM